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Jul 5, 2013

With God on their side: when religion and politics collide

Labor MP Ed Husic was criticised for being sworn in on a Koran -- but the influence of Christianity on Parliament is far greater than Islam. Crikey asks whatever happened to the separation of church and state.


“Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven …”

The Christian Lord’s Prayer is recited to both houses of federal Parliament at the start of every sitting day. MPs rise in their places; some join in with gusto, some mumble along with characteristic Anglican reserve, others say nothing. People watching from the public galleries never quite know whether to stand or sit.

Labor MP Ed Husic was criticised by some this week for being sworn into his frontbench role on a Koran. But for those who would like to see a more effective separation of church and state in Australia, the most pressing issue is not Islam.

Religion, particularly Christianity, permeates federal Parliament. The Lord’s Prayer is recited daily; “the blessing of Almighty God” is sought in the first sentence of the constitution; there is a Christian church service to mark the start of each sitting year; MPs are sworn in on religious texts as they recite the official oath “so help me God” (some take a non-religious affirmation instead).

There are influential evangelical parliamentary prayer breakfasts for MPs and weekly Christian fellowship meetings at which alliances are forged (Prime Minister Kevin Rudd used to be a keen attendee). There’s a prayer and meditation room in Parliament House, notorious for amorous trysts. There have been unofficial parliamentary chaplains who have prayed with MPs to help them decide which way to vote on legislation.

All of which may surprise some of the six million Australians who have no religion, or worship a non-Christian God.

In the wake of this week’s short-lived focus on religion and politics sparked by Husic’s Koran moment, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia Michael Boyd is calling for a more robust separation of church and state.

“I think it’s critical to a civil society,” Boyd told Crikey. “It is incredibly important when you’ve got a society where we have multi versions of religion. It’s extremely important that church and state are completely separated.”

Boyd is not fussed about Husic being sworn in on a Koran — he says any MP should be sworn in on “any book of fiction” they choose. (Despite some of the media coverage, religious expert Marion Maddox told Crikey Husic is “not the groundbreaker here” — an unnamed, federal Catholic MP had been sworn in on a Koran before, for thrills. And MPs have been sworn in on the Jewish bible.)

But Boyd is adamant the Lord’s Prayer should be banished from Parliament. Incidentally, the Anglican version of the prayer is read — despite the fact that just 17% of Australians follow the faith. There are more Catholics.

“It’s a bit of an insult,” he said. ” I think it’s quite disrespectful of quite a substantial number of members of the electorate that the Christian prayer is chosen as the one that Parliament opens with … it illustrates how out-of-touch parliamentarians are.”

The Lord’s Prayer is preceded by this prayer, especially written for Parliament:

“Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouchsafe Thy special blessing upon this Parliament, and that Thou wouldst be pleased to direct and prosper the work of Thy servants to the advancement of Thy glory, and to the true welfare of the people of Australia.”

There have been unsuccessful moves to scrap daily prayers by former Greens leader Bob Brown and former Labor speaker Harry Jenkins. Former Labor leader Kim Beazley used to boycott prayers.

Then there’s the constitution. Boyd describes as unfortunate and inappropriate this first clause in the preamble (although he notes it would be very difficult to change):

“WHEREAS the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth …”

Maddox, an author on religion and politics at Macquarie University, says the religious trappings of Parliament are a concern. “The more that we set our institutions up to look as if they are predominantly about just those of us who are Christian, the harder it is to have a Parliament that is truly representative of everybody,” she said. Maddox says the constitutional God reference was a PR move designed to ensure the federation got up; there was a “huge fight” about it in the 1890s, and it was deliberately written to not specify which God was involved.

So why is it that our pollies pay homage to an Anglican God each day, in a country which has no official religion and is supposed to separate church and state?

The church/state separation is a slippery principle and experts differ on what it means. It’s enshrined in the constitution, section 116:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

Maddox says this amounts to a separation of church and state “in some respects”, although the High Court has tended to interpret it to mean less here than it did in the US (read the first amendment here).

Constitutional law expert George Williams says the principle does apply here, but “the separation itself is a relatively weak one in Australia. This isn’t an on-off switch, it’s a spectrum.” It only applies to Commonwealth laws — so the reading of a prayer in Parliament is not affected. Williams says the constitution makes it clear Australia’s federation is based on pluralism, so the reference to “Almighty God” is an inconsistency.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, we are becoming less religious, and those who are religious are less likely to be Christian. Christians have plummeted from 96% of the population in 1911 to 61% today; 22% now say they have no religion. There are just over 1.5 million Australians who adhere to a non-Christian religion; Buddhists make up the largest group.

Supporters of a more secular political process, of course, point more to the influence of religions on policy (euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, etc), and the spending of billions of taxpayer dollars on religious schools, hospitals, aged-care homes, job search providers and school chaplains.

And it remains to be seen if born-again PM Kevin Rudd will once more hold press conferences outside his church on a Sunday.


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40 thoughts on “With God on their side: when religion and politics collide

  1. mmoore@phaa.net.au

    The ACT Assembly for the best part of two decades has dealt with the issue of prayers in an inclusive manner. Standing Order 30 provides for the Speaker to ask MLAs to “pray or reflect on our responsibilities to the people of the ACT”. It is step in the right direction. However, the issues of politics and religion still permeate this small parliament as illustrated when (Catholic) Speaker Vicki Dunne attempted to run a religious service as part of the opening of the current Assembly.

  2. Warren Joffe

    Good to know that there’s something to keep Boyd busy – even more harmless than the Henry Georgers and Proportional Representation enthusiasts (anyone for the political beauties of Israel’s Knesset?). As, if you can’t read Hebrew and Greek (and I’m told the Greek was pretty low grade) there is nothing better than the KJV and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (no later than the 1662 version) it is up to us all to help preserve these superb literary foundational elements for Anglophone culture (ours whether we like it or not).

    All of us, atheist (cultural) Catholics, (cultural) Jews, (cultural) Anglicans or whatever should know that Chesterton had a point and that there is an awful human tendency to believe which is bound to be dangerous when it takes off after some novelty (Jim Jones and Guyana), the Waco Whackos, Jehovah’s Witnesses, varieties of Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyite-Maoist murderous utopians, and now our global warmists amongst others. [Yes, yes, the earth’s atmosphere and perhaps oceans have been warming for about 250 years since the peak of the last Little Ice Age but we don’t know why so we can’t possibly say that the contribution of CO2 is so big and so dangerous that we ought to destroy landscapes with windfarms and spend money on unnecessarily expensive electricity instead of e.g. the money for higher education which Gillard and Swan have taken from universities so they can pretend to fund Gonski.]

  3. klewso

    They might as well start by saying grace?
    “For what you about to receive, to the Lord be truly thankful!”

  4. klewso

    Or a quote from Dylan? “And my best friend Murdoch don’t even know what it is I got…”?

  5. Gavin Moodie

    While we’re at it we should rescind the law prohibiting trading on christian religious holidays: easter, xmas and Anzac day.

  6. Rex Simmons

    Excellent article: the quicker religion and state are properly separated the better. People can believe whatever fairy tale they like, but still having standard “prayers” each day and other “God” references in our parliament is ridiculous.

  7. Cathy Alexander

    Interesting point mmoore (if that’s Michael Moore, hello). I think Bob Brown was trying to remove the daily prayers from federal Parliament and replace them with a quiet time for reflection. Quite a Quaker approach …

  8. Venise Alstergren

    This is the sort of thing I’ve been saying for years. No one ever listens.

    Australian conservatives will accept anything that already has a precedent. It is like a tune one learned as a kid. A jingle whose only merit is that it’s easy to remember.

    How many parliamentarians pause and reflect on the words? More importantly, no matter the religion-or the lack of it, which Parliamentarian swears to him/her self to give full value of themselves to their work-for the electorate???

    On the one hand we have excellent documentaries on evolution and science showing us how, when, where everything on the planet evolved, back to a few billion years ago. On the other hand we are held out to believe the Oz public is enthused by the concept of a god who parcels out truth, justice, the Oz way of life, and guardian of the local footy team.

    Which is it; the Constitution, or meaningless, routine and mumbo-jumbo? FFS someone pee, or get off the pot.

  9. CML

    I agree with the content of this article. The sooner we get rid of ALL references to religion in the Constitution, the better!
    And while we are about it, make the wording more in tune with the American Constitution. That way we won’t have to fund those dreadful “church schools” which foster division, or the religious health and other institutions which thrive on discrimination. Win, win all round!!!

  10. Venise Alstergren

    WARREN JOFFE: “it is up to us all to help preserve these superb literary foundational elements for Anglophone culture (ours whether we like it or not). ”

    We are not talking re the value of literature, we are talking about our lives and how we should govern ourselves.

    Why the rant on Global Warming?-I don’t remember Cathy Walker mentioning it.

  11. Serenatopia

    ‘Boyd is not fussed about Husic being sworn in on a Koran — he says any MP should be sworn in on “any book of fiction” they choose.’ Grhhhhhhhhh

    C’mon Cathy…you really failed with this article when you gave that sniggering snail a platform…

    Separation of Church and State you say? lol

    I am not a Christian nor am I Religious but am I NOT offended by the majority accepted religion in this country? Hell no—if they want pray and give thanks to their Jesus—or swear by a Quran—well that’s fine by me…People’s private rituals and beliefs don’t offend me…what offends me is judgment and putrid values…

    What we need is not the separation of Church and State—we need the separation of Hypocrisy and Authenticity in our Parliaments—

  12. cnewt27

    Well, to suggest another angle, consider how the taxpayer funded “private” schools are predominantly religious. I live on Qld’s Sunshine Coast(in Fairfax where, by my count, the BER funding went pretty near 50/50 which is not the proportion of state/private numbers, btw)and apart from a Steiner school all the rest of the “private” schools are affiliated with some branch of religion. Now we are told that since private school parents are taxpayers, they deserve access to public funding, but does that work in reverse? What access would my kids have to any of these religious schools I could in theory “choose” (after I’ve checked out Julia’s “My School” site)on the basis that I’m a taxpayer? Can I require these schools to accept my kids because they take massive amounts of public funds? I don’t believe so. Can I seek to enroll my kids and have them excused from religious activities? I doubt it. So what are these schools actually required to do for the vast amounts of public money they get? Do they have to take a quota of the challenging monsters that state schools have to take and have great difficulty suspending or excluding? Do they have to keep taking whoever walks in the door regardless of size or facilities, like state schools are obliged to do? I don’t believe so. No, they play the “private” school card. I suggest we need to move to a radical rethink of public funding for private schools. Why not require private schools taking public funds have to accept any enrolment that walks in the door with the money. Accept any enrolment with provision for opting out of religious activities. Require private school, since they are so fab, to take their fair share of difficult students, the million dollar kids who require a full-time aide by their side every minute of the day. Why not go further and require private schools to choose: charge fees or accept public money but not both? Let’s seriously think about dividing religion from public education, and that means get rid of the ghastly chaplains in state schools. In my experience this terrible scheme has resulted in loopy, faith-healing pentacostal fundamentalists roaming around state schools hugging kids and praying on assembly. No, they aren’t meant to pray on assembly but there’s the rules and there’s what crazies do. One chaplain I spoke to defined proslytising as forcing religion onto students.

  13. Andbega

    Yawn! everybody knows that any self respecting God would never listen to the prayers of politicians, come on now!!! ..and for the rest of it, it would be impressive if you could just draw a line in the sand between God and religion. A distinction between institution and spirit. Until then don’t even begin the debate.

    Venise ticks a few of boxes but completely misses the page on others.

  14. Andbega

    Sorry Serenatopia, just saw it. You are not far from the kingdom. LoL

  15. Charles Richardson

    I’m right behind Mr Boyd’s campaign for separation of church and state, but it’s not true to say that the line about “relying on the blessing of Almighty God” is in the preamble to the Constitution. It’s in the preamble to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, an act of the British parliament; section 9 of that act contains our Constitution, but the rest of it isn’t in any sense part of the Constitution, and the Constitution itself doesn’t mention god or religion at all, except in the negative form of s. 116.

  16. Warren Joffe

    cnewt27 What a turnoff. I only got as far in your rant as required to know that you knew nothing of about non-government schools and hadn’t made the slightest effort to find out. Even Catholic schools have taken non-Catholic students for many years and a proper appreciation of Mammon by the parents might be enough for most. What religion do you think the very many Chinese (domiciled in China, in SE Asia and in Australia) who attend well known independent schools profess? And the Thais who started coming to boarding schools in the 1940s? Knowing Catholics and Jews who went to Anglican schools and didn’t attend religious services (as, latterly plenty of cultural Anglicans don’t either) I wonder if that 27 refers to your year of birth. You would just about be old enough to have supported some of the old Orange campaigns against Catholic activities….

  17. Malcolm Street

    Serenatopia – the point isn’t private beliefs, it’s the explicit elements of one (albeit dominant) religion in the structures of government that apply to all Australians.

  18. Serenatopia

    You hit that nail on the head Andbega! No self-respecting God would listen to the prayers (or self-reflective meditation) of that lot—whether they be atheist feminists, catholic shoppies, agnostic lesbians or non-practicing Muslims, or hardcore wasps! And Malcolm Street I understand what you are saying but it isn’t religion that is the source of the problem in our parliament! We have witnessed enough backstabbing and putrid conduct from our elected and unelected bureaucrats, irrespective of their alleged faith, in the past decade to create a revolution in this nation! But I don’t see the stupefied masses chanting for change!

  19. Hurriam Andolini

    Yes, Malcolm Street. Christianity is the “state religion” of Australia. And most of the western world too for that matter.

    But what even is it? I am completely irreligious, but have done some independent research of my own and the results are quite surprising.

    Did you know that the early Christians actually were n’t called christians? They were called “Nazarenes” or in other places, just “Followers of the Way”. This is evidenced in the Book of Acts 24:5 and 24:14 during a court trial of the Apostle Paul. The name “christian” was a derogatory term given too them by the Romans around 70-80AD, long after the event.

    To further confirm the difference between the Nazarenes and what eventually morphed into the entity known as christianity, see what the early church historians had to say regarding the Nazarenes:

    They disagree with Jews because they have come to faith in Christ; but since they are still fettered by the Law – circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest – they are not in accord with the Christians.
    —Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.4

    They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do.
    —Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2

    They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written.
    —Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.9.

    As you can see, there is a very large theological gap between the original followers of Jesus and christianity as we know it today. They held fast to the Torah of Moses as well as the New Testament…big diff.

    The greatest con in history was foisted on the world when Constantine in 325 AD, took mortgage over the remnant of the Nazarenes and amalgamated them with all the other Pagan religions within his empire and called it Christianity, invictus solus, worship of the Sun. The Great Apostasy is a term used by some religious groups to describe a perceived fallen state of traditional Christianity from then on. Constantine kicked out all the Jews from the assembly of Nazarenes and any semblance of Judaism and blotted out the memory of the Nazarenes. Today we have the state religion of Constantine..Christianity.

    Sorry for the long post.

  20. arthurneddysmith

    Went to Victorian parliament for the first time the other day and was quite surprised to see everyone told to stand while the speaker read out the Lord’s Prayer. I’m not sure why, I should have expected it, but it seemed so out of place nonetheless.

    More surprising than that is Warren Joffe. Do you do this for every article? -Clumsily insert every issue on which you have a personal axe-to-grind, that is.

  21. Warren Joffe


    What an interesting lot of new information and argument, to wit the state of your expectations and emotions plus a judgment on the trivial.

    As to my initial provocation I can only say that you would be wrong to suppose that I ever get anywhere near the totality of the matters I might raise in the way of provoking response (that’s one motive) or seeing how others may react. Are you relentlessly boring and one-track pedestrian at dinner parties, especially when others are boring and/or trivial and ignorant even after a couple of glasses of wine?

    As to my response to cnewt27 can you disagree with me?

  22. Steve777

    The opening prayer ‘we humbly beseech they to vouchsafe…’ Means nothing to most MPs and voters. It would be better replaced by something along the lines of ‘we promise that we will conduct these proceedings with diligence, integrity and dignity for the benefit of Australia, it’s people and the wider world’, followed by a minute of silence for quite meditation and, for those who wish, silent prayer. If MP’s actually tried to keep that pledge, our Parliaments would be far more civil and effective.

  23. Steve777

    Or maybe our Parliamentarians could simply promise that they won’t talk crap.

  24. Hurriam Andolini

    ” Are you relentlessly boring and one-track pedestrian at dinner parties, especially when others are boring and/or trivial and ignorant even after a couple of glasses of wine?”

    I love it, just love it hahaha.

  25. Jack Martin

    It is a bit silly that our current parliamentarians have to sleepwalk their way through a prayer. But surely there is a bigger intrusion by religion, into Asutralia’s tax base?

    If I tried to create a tax-exempt entity because I claim to be able to speak to God through my hair-dryer in the privacy of my own bedroom, I’d be dismissed as delusional.

    Increase the size of the room to an auditorium, the number of people to a thousand, and remove the hair-dryer (but continue to speak to God), suddenly I can “advance religion”, tax-free.

    (PS I wonder how I’d go if the god I was speaking to was Ra, Thor or Neptune? Or a celestial teapot?)

    [with apologies to Sam Harris]

  26. Craig

    Hurriam, I don’t care how many attics you v’e searched or how many holes you v’e dug to find this stuff out, but please don’t bother us with it. It’s too much of a quantum leap for us ignoramuses, go and try the pulpit or something or write a fkin book or something, but FFSake!!! take it somewhere else will you.

  27. Serenatopia

    Absolutely Jack Martin—and we are not just talking about Christian organisations? What agenda does this Government really have when they are willing to fund, sponsor and give tax-exempt status to religious organisations that are quasi-radical? -if I wanted the Government’s assistance to set up a charity to assist and represent whistleblowers who are being bullied by Government institutions,, I will be ipso facto denied any grants or granted tax-exempt status. The Government is more interested in crushing whistleblowers! But I can report that the Government is willing to sponsor schools and institutions for Habashi Muslims in Australia who are akin to Born again Christians ie happy to sing their way in and out of their existence…
    I think those in power understand that the power of religion is to dumb people down and ensure that they are distracted by the spiritual rather than the practical…

  28. Warren Joffe

    @Craig @Hurriam

    I wouldn’t discourage people from giving those who have or take the time to look a blogs the benefit of their research or older knowledge especially if they take the trouble to do the paragraphing properly. After all it isn’t difficult to skim and skip.

  29. Warren Joffe

    @ Jack Martin

    You haven’t thought it through or maybe you just don’t know. You can set up a “tax exempt” entity (trust or corporate body) simply be declaring a trust over certain income earning assets requiring the income to be used for “charitable purposes”. It could be as simple as a one page document (will or settlement) which is treated as sufficient by the ATO to establish a charitable trust.

    Then the trustee(s) or corporate director{s} would be free to use the income, and maybe capital, to support religious objectives or a junior tennis coaching scheme or whatever.

  30. Serenatopia

    @Warren J—it is not just a question of ‘tax-exempt’ status—it is a question of funding. And it is not as easy as you allege to gain ‘tax-exempt’ status.

  31. AR

    I’m with Boyd – let them all swear on Harry Potter.

  32. klewso

    Apparently God can hear the prayer but not the rest of their crap?

  33. Cathy Alexander

    Hi Hurriam,

    re “Yes, Malcolm Street. Christianity is the “state religion” of Australia. And most of the western world too for that matter.”

    Why do you say Christianity is the state religion of Australia? I had assumed it might be, but Marion Maddox (quoted in this story) assured me that Australia has no state / official religion. Certainly the constitution does not set down a religion.

    Maddox said yes, the UK has an official religion, which is Anglicanism. Apparently the Queen is the head of the Anglican church.

    I’d be interested in what source / text you’re pointing to re the state religion – and do you mean Anglicanism?


  34. Cathy Alexander

    And Charles Richardson – very interesting point.

    So you’re saying this document


    is NOT actually Australia’s constitution? (that the first part is the UK enabling act and not actually part of Australia’s constitution?)

    In which case, can you provide us with a link to the Australian constitution, without other legislation around it?


  35. Warren Joffe

    Oh, C’mon Cathy Alexander even a 90 year old can surely be expected to put “Australian Constitution text” into any seach engine [I didn’t have Google amongst my toolbars on this computer so simply typed the words in the address area and Bing produced a host of links which would not, probably, even require you to be able to read a conventional Westminster system act of Parliament to see what it was enacting (in this case the definition and provision of the Australian Constitution).

  36. Hurriam Andolini

    @Warren Joffe

    Hold the Horses Hoss, Cathy was just requesting a link, a short cut, without having to wade through all the periphial legalism. Is that hard to understand? 1+1+1=3, but you still have 1.

  37. Hurriam Andolini

    Hi Cathy

    “I’d be interested in what source / text you’re pointing to re the state religion – and do you mean Anglicanism?”

    No source text Cathy, so I guess it’s probably not official. But it’s certainly unofficial, at least according to nearly every Prime Minister in the last 20 years…especially Howard.

    Would it matter if it was Anglicanism or any other Protestant variation? They are all daughters of the same Harlot.

    I know it’s Monday, but have a great day anyway.

  38. Charles Richardson

    Hi Cathy –
    Yes, the Constitution is the part that appears after the words in covering clause 9 saying “The Constitution of the Commonwealth shall be as follows”. It’s customary to print the whole Act together because some of the covering clauses are important in interpreting the Constitution (for example, defining what “Queen” means). But they’re clearly not part of the Constitution itself. Different lawyers will give you different views on how they could be changed; I’d say they can be amended or repealed by an ordinary act of parliament.

  39. Cathy Alexander

    Hurriam I see your point that it could be argued Anglicanism is our unofficial state religion, due to similarities with UK system / institutions (where Anglicanism is the state religion).

    And I’d say most of our PMs have been Anglican or other Protestant (I’m sure someone has compiled a list); and former GG Peter Hollingworth was an Anglican ex-bishop. The Lord’s Prayer in parliament is the Anglican version.

    Very interesting given there are more Catholics than Anglicans in Australia (I think Catholics took the lead in the 70s / 80s).


  40. Zarathrusta

    I, as a non-religious but somewhat spiritual person, actually like the the preamble in our constitution. Although I think the statement “the people of … have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth” is far more important than the god stuff. Of course the Aboriginals didn’t agree but they were not people then, just part of the fauna – a concept still shockingly reflected on our coinage.

    But the “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God,” is great in that it disposes of god in one swift swoop and isn’t an act of self flagilation or begging but rather one of clarity and confident intent. All prayers should me made with such full expectation of their fulfillment. It’s part of the wonderful expediency of our constitution.

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